Marriage: A thing of the past?

Roshmi Bhaumik
Published : 25 April 2018, 04:56 PM
Updated : 25 April 2018, 04:56 PM

Traditionally, marriage is the unification of two people of opposite genders. The newer concepts of gay marriages, roommates of opposite gender and various questions about gender and sexuality complicate the meaning of this age-old tradition. What does marriage really mean in this day and age? Maybe it is worthwhile; to revisit the meaning of marriage before this institution starts to lose its past significance. Let us explore how socio-economic trends led to the evolution of marriage and the modern-day challenges, in this context.

The dictionary definition of marriage is the formal union of a man and a woman, recognised by religion or law. Some religions like Islam and Mormonism allow the man to have multiple wives. In some tribes like the Masai and Irigwe people, women have multiple husbands. However, the most common form of marriage is to have one legal spouse, at any given time.

Historically, families looked at marriage as a means of strengthening their foothold in society. Marriage proposals were initiated by the head of the household. It laid down rules, guiding interpersonal relationships, and physical intimacy.

The marital partnership assumed that the individuals did not engage in physical relations outside of marriage. Though the first instances of infidelity were as old as the tradition itself, the sanctity of marital bond was respected by old societies. It was looked upon it as a joining of body and soul. Marriage promoted strong emotional bonding between the spouses. Traditionally, marriages came with a lifetime warranty. "Till death do us part" was a reasonable assumption in most cultures in old times. Many Eastern cultures, which believed in reincarnation, extended this alliance beyond the current lifetime. For example, Hindu marriages were thought to last for seven lives.

Until recently, marriage was still an important milestone in a man and a woman's life. It called for a celebration with the extended families. The couple performed rituals and took vows with their life-partner. After the formal ceremony, the pair focused on building a secure haven for their children. This perpetuated the humankind, through generations to come.

The practice of marriage, saw the development of extended families. Kids grew up, exposed to kith and kin, like older siblings and cousins, parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents and great-grandparents. These people had varied temperaments and different opinions, partly because of their age but also because of their upbringing and economic status. From a very young age, kids learned to accept these people for who they were. While they could freely choose their friends, they were born to a family and were automatically linked to their relatives. This may have helped build the capacity to adjust, develop patience and tolerance.

The concept of divorce is relatively new. A couple seeks divorce because of infidelity, abandonment, physical and mental abuse, religious or cultural differences and addiction. The first recorded divorce in the American colonies, according to, was in 1643. The Quarter Court of Boston, MA granted a divorce when Denis Clarke had abandoned his wife, Anne, to be with another woman. Even though divorce was an option for the rich, as early as the eighteenth century, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was the first divorce law of general application.

The Hindu Marriage Act, enforced in 1955, legally permitted divorce for couples united by Hindu marriage laws. The Indian Divorce Act 1869 extended this to Christian marriages. In a landmark ruling in 2017, India's Supreme Court banned the controversial Islamic divorce practice, where husbands ended a marriage by saying "Talaq" thrice.

According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, divorce rate doubled in the last decade to 0.1 percent. Current divorce rate in India is 1 percent, which is still lower than USA at 50 percent.

A significant advantage of marriage was the practice of shared responsibility. Women gave birth to babies. In most cases, the mother-in-law and the daughters helped the lady of the house in cooking and cleaning and even in looking after babies. Women engaged their soft skills and intuitive qualities to emotionally support and nurture their family.

Men's work involved observation, rational thinking, and strategy. Men were physically stronger. They associated with small groups for gathering resources and food and were in charge of providing protection from enemies. As this system was followed, the human race continued to grow and flourish even in the face of hostile environments, natural calamities, and wild predators. The population growth rate was steady at 0.05% per year for thousands of years from 8000 BC till the late 1700s.

Applied for generations, this may have shaped the development of the brain and thinking approaches of men and women. Eastern cultures think of men and women as ying and yang, or the complementary forces just as light and shadow. With the division of labour, individuals did not have to do every kind of job and be a jack of all trades.

Division of labour based on gender had few disadvantages. Gender-biased ideas were formed. Men were not expected to cook and women were not expected to know martial arts. Hence, men and women with inclination towards activities dominated by the opposite gender felt unfairly held back. A man who liked dancing was considered weird, just as the woman, who was interested in science.

Many cultures were getting male-dominated as their contribution was considered more important. Men were given powerful positions in society. They made rules that were unfair to women.

Widows were not allowed to get remarried, yet men would remarry after the death of his wife. Eastern India followed a practice of Sati, later banned in 1829, where widows were burnt in the funeral pyre of her husband. Today, this would be tantamount to murder.

The trend of female infanticide in the countries like China and India have been going on for many years. With China's one-child policy, introduced in 1979 to control population, many families preferred to have a boy rather than a girl. In 2013, this policy was relaxed. It is, however, affecting the future dynamics of marriage. According to a Harvard research, by the year 2020, there will be several million more men than women at marriageable age in China.

In the eighteenth century, agriculture took a step back and gave way to industrialisation. After the industrial revolution, the increase in human population was tremendous. It rose from 770 million in 1760 to an inconceivable 6 billion at the end of the 20th century.

With changing socio-economic conditions, many families moved out of their hometown to work in other cities. Families became nuclear. People gave in to individual choices of life partners. Many young girls opposed the older custom of arranged marriages. To be romantically attracted to their future husband was an important criterion above all other practical considerations. The collective social goals of marriage got neglected.

In 1920, the government of United States passed the 19th amendment granting voting rights to women. This was followed by the ratification of ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) for women in the 1970s. A significant number of women joined the workforce, handling machinery. Progressively with years, women became equally capable to work in industries.

The economic independence brought forth a relaxed dependency among the spouses. Men and women were interacting in all walks of life. This led to intimacy between the two genders in various forms outside of a nuptial bond. With women engaged in full-time jobs, raising kids in nuclear families became a challenge.

For a modern girl, with an overdose of chick flicks, the idea of marriage is finding her prince charming. She expects her husband to be a hero who will provide, protect and love unconditionally. In reality, husbands are equally immature and demanding. Without the tools that made it work, marriage has morphed into a challenging arrangement in their stressful life.

People are no longer solely dependent on their spouses for their emotional and physical needs. They spend time with friends in the real or virtual world, work out at a gym or relax in a spa. Various avenues of entertainment opened up with the advent of television, Internet, social media, and smartphones. Family responsibilities are hard to fit in with critical work schedules and tempting options for entertainment and relaxation. Earning capacity, freedom of mingling and lack of urgency to perpetuate one's family have led the new generation to look upon marriage as an option or afterthought. Working men and women are delaying their marriage beyond their 30s and sometimes 40s.

With a whopping 7 billion current population, the thought of extinction of the human race is probably far-fetched. However, the fertility rate across the world has steadily declined since the 1960s. Slow and progressive changes in personal development have blurred the collective social perspectives. Though it had been a milestone life-event for thousands of years in the past, modern social structure and standards do not support this age-old institution as a requirement for a successful life. Is the institution of marriage on a sure path towards extinction?

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher